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Monday, July 18, 2016

Week of Review - The Dominion War

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In 1993, Star Trek: The Next Generation had become so successful that the powers that be decided to produce a spin-off show.  The idea for the spin-off took awhile to coalesce, with the central concept of a Trek show set on a space station eventually manifesting after the network passed on a similar premise from J. Michael Straczynski entitled Babylon 5.  The resulting show was Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and it’s widely considered to be the best Star Trek show of all time.  The series was about the titular station Deep Space 9, a platform set-up over the backwater world of Bajor near the edge of Alpha Quadrant. 

The station was intended to watch over Bajor as it recovered from centuries of occupation, but in the first episode the station’s new command Ben Sisko discovers a stable wormhole nearby that leads across the galaxy.  Now, it’s up to Deep Space 9 to facilitate the political, exploratory, and military forces that pour between two sides of the galaxy.  All of that lead together into a 4 season long mega-arc that stands as the greatest Star Trek story ever told: the Dominion War.

The Dominion War is the name given to a massive collection of episodes spanning form the season 4 premiere to the end of Deep Space Nine.  The storyline actually has its roots in season 3 when Ronald D. Moore came on board as a writer for DS9 and slowly moved over into the role of show runner.  The arc revolves around the Dominion, one of the more obscure but no less devastating villain groups of Star Trek. 

Most folks tend to only know a handful of Trek villains like the Klingons, Romulans, and the Borg, with the possible inclusion of the eugenic princes if they’re particularly well informed on Khan.  Those are all great bad guys but the Dominion are, hands down, the best villains of the Star Trek canon and are a big part of why Deep Space 9 is so well remember now.  They were a bigger threat than anything the Federation had ever faced before, even bigger than the Borg, because they fought a war of identity. 

The Dominion were introduce in Deep Space 9’s third season as an emerging empire with the Gamma Quadrant, the other side of the universe where DS9’s wormhole emptied out into.  Not much was known about them at first but a picture slowly emerged as more of an organization than a single race.  Their skill was bending civilizations and races to their will through all manners of coercion: military, diplomatic, technological, the works. 

Their lead race was known as the Founders, a species of shape shifters that possessed telepathic connections with one another.  The Founders had initially used their abilities to replace people in governments and shape civilizations to their will before moving on to genetic manipulation to craft whole races to serve them.  Their major servant species are the Vorta, a race of arborial peoples they manipulated into an administrative species, and the Jem’hadar, hulking dinosaur men made of rage and addicted to a drug only the Dominion has. 

Basically everything about the Dominion is designed, from the ground up, to push the Federation and Star Fleet to its absolute limits.  They combine the strongest aspects of Star Fleet’s many enemies and even some of the Federation’s own best qualities. 

Their identity as a gestalt empire made up of subservient species works as a dark inversion of the Federation’s own union of planets, while the various species provide them many unique strengths.  The Vorta are capable of diplomatic maneuverings to neutralize possible enemies without combat while the Jem’hadar are the greatest soldiers in the galaxy.  They’re a people without an obvious weakness or vulnerability, just strengths. 

All of that makes the Dominion a formidable opponent but it’s the Star Fleet forces they’re standing against that make them truly great.  The Dominion are a product of the heroes they face, designed specifically to go against the crew of Deep Space 9, which is a very different thing than fighting Kirk or Picard.  

See, Star Fleet didn’t staff Deep Space 9 with its best and brightest members because they didn’t realize it would become such an important station.  Instead, every one of the bridge officers of Deep Space 9 are the kind of folks the Federation just doesn’t want around. 

Science Officer Dax is an ancient symbiote looking for a quiet last few years, engineering Chief O’Brien is a neglected veteran with a ton of personal issues, Dr. Bashir is a chronic underachiever whose whole life is about flying under the radar, and even Captain Sisko isn’t actually that good.  

After losing his wife Sisko spent 3 years cooling his heels at a shipyard before getting sent off to Star Fleet’s backwater territory as a way of putting him out to pasture.  No one here is the best face of the Federation, they aren’t even the B-squad, they’re just adequate; where the Dominion is all strengths our heroes are all flaws. 

That’s not to say they can’t get things done, because they definitely, it’s just that they aren’t as equal to the task at hand as the previous Star Fleet crews we’ve seen.  Had it been Captain Kirk or Picard facing down the Dominion it probably never would’ve come to all out war but part of the entire point of the show is that people don’t get to make those decisions.  

History rarely turns on the whims of gods or kings and more often is driven by small, quiet coincidence and happenstance.  In this case, Benjamin Sisko wasn’t the best man for the job or the worst; he was just the man who happened to be there when things all went wrong. 

That humanity shaped the entire arc of the Dominion War, with the opening salvos emphasizing the Dominion striking at the Federation through various proxy conflicts before declaring out and out war by the midpoint.  Many fans, myself included, view the final third of the saga as its real high point as this was the point where the hero’s greatest flaws and weakness became the only weapons they had left to use against the Dominion.  Many fans will cite ‘In The Pale Moonlight’ as the series best episode for this very reason. 

The episode was about Sisko contriving away to bring the Romulan Empire into the war against the Dominion through lies, treachery, and even murder.  It’s a dark twist for his character but the whole reason it’s possible at all is because of the pre-existing flaws in Sisko’s character.  Sisko never had the upright, unshakable moralism of Picard or the creative ingenuity of Kirk, all he had was a sense of determination to succeed so that’s what he used. 

As much as I like that episode I wouldn't actually consider it my favorite, or really the high point of the show compared to some really excellent follow ups.  ‘In the Pale Moonlight’ is a very good tipping point for the series, the moment where the man defining the attitude of the Federation and Star Fleet makes the decision to embrace pragmatism over ethics and the genius of the show is its unwillingness to simply let that choice be. 

As the series goes on we learn of a secret group called Section 31, a cadre of humans actively living outside the Federation and committing black ops so the Federation doesn’t have to.  They’re tacitly approved by the Federation for their utility and they end up pretty much winning the war for everyone when they develop a deadly virus that afflicts the Dominion’s Founders.  These guys play a major role in shaping the show’s ultimate critique of the Federation as it’s filtered through the Dominion War and, most creepily, the way the Dominion actually won in the end. 

Even though the series ended with the Dominion forced to withdraw from the Alpha Quadrant their victory ends up a cultural one in that the war has left Star Fleet and the Federation forever changed.  The only way they could find to win was to sacrifice their identity, sacrifice the ideals that made them what they are.  To defeat an enemy so much more powerful than itself the Federation and Star Fleet gave up its idealized vision of Utopia, embracing a pragmatic realism that accepted biological weapons, political assassination, and total war as just the price of existence. 

What was an organization of peace has become an extremely militarized force, a whole new generation of cadets have come up now viewing Star Fleet as a military service you enlist in to fight the good fight.  That’s why the Dominion are the greatest foes the Federation ever faced and why they make such a perfect inversion of the Federation, because even though they didn’t conquer they did colonize; they made the Federation more like the Dominion. 

All throughout the series, Deep Space 9 posited the idea that the Federation, though predominately benevolent, was still a nation that enforced its own ideals and agenda, usually through the method of soft powers.  It was a reoccurring and well made argument about the way the Federation finds way to subtly chip away at established and ancient cultures with a friendly face and a helpful attitude till, bit by bit, everyone’s society reflects the Federation.  

The Dominion is that same threat done back upon the Federation a thousand fold.  They’re an insidious force that assimilates people with every compromise and every rationalization, slowly twisting even the purest morality into something ugly until you start to wonder how pure and good the morality of the Federation ever really was. 

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